February

Our wildlife gardening tasks guides you through year with specific advice for each month. We also highlight different creatures throughout the seasons.

Winter has been going on for a long time now, and many animals are feeling the consequences. February is typically a month of bitter cold. More and more animals are succumbing to the cold as the harsh realities of survival in winter become more evident. Those that continue the struggle will be at their most desperate, as the quest for sustenance continues. A good wildlife garden is now more important to local species than ever. However as the month progresses and days lengthen the careful observer may begin to notice the first tentative signs of spring's approach.

Jobs for the month

  • Put up nesting boxes for birds
  • Keep bird feeders topped up and continue to put out food on the ground and bird table
  • Avoid foods that could cause choking in young fledglings
  • Keep the bird bath topped up
  • Regularly clean the bird bath and table
  • Put out hedgehog and badger food
  • Plant new berrying trees and shrubs – a mix of natives and non-natives works well
  • Put out log and/or rock piles to create areas of shelter for wildlife
  • Plan and dig a wildlife pond
  • Build a compost bin
  • Prepare the ground for a wild flower meadow
  • Buy and hang a bee nesting box

Mammals, reptiles and amphibians

Frogs, toads and hedgehogs may emerge from hibernation in mild weather. Hedgehog and badger food is now available for sale. It is not a good idea to feed hedgehogs with bread and milk, as this is not their natural diet. Dog food is an alternative.

Birds

Put up nesting boxes for birds, to increase their choice of nesting sites. You could hang a nest box opposite a window, in the hope of seeing the mother coming and going from the nest. Boxes hung on walls can be safer from cats and other predators than those hung on trees.

A north or north-east facing position is best, as strong sun can make nest boxes uninviting. Choose a height suitable for the bird species in your garden, after doing a little research.

When choosing nesting boxes, consider their design before buying. Woodcrete (a mixture of concrete and sawdust) can be a better material than wood, as it is cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter. Different designs may be more or less suitable for particular species, and it is worth doing a little research. Combined nest boxes and feeding tables are not usually popular with wild birds, and can be unhygienic. Bird food catalogues often have helpful information about available products, as do the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the British Trust for Ornithology and The Wildlife Trusts.

Providing food for birds from February until April helps to supplement natural supplies, which can be few and far between in February. Many species in decline, such as yellowhammers and tree sparrows, rely on finding food locally throughout the winter and early spring, when there are fewer insects and berries to be had. The birds need sustenance to ensure they are fit enough to breed.

You may hear the familiar spring dawn chorus starting, as robins, thrushes, blackbirds and other species signal their availability to potential mates. When putting out bird food, it is best to avoid peanuts and large chunks of food, as there is a risk that large pieces could be fed by adult birds to their fledglings, which could result in choking. Safe foods include: wildbird seed mixes (but not those containing peanuts or dog biscuit); black sunflower seeds (the birds will remove the outside casing, and the inner seed is soft); mild grated cheese; sultanas, raisins and currants (best soaked overnight); pinhead oatmeal; apples, pears and other soft fresh fruit; mealworms & waxworms.

Continue to hang bird feeders if you have not done so already. There are many models available, designed to help keep out rats, cats, pigeons and squirrels, or to fit onto walls, windows, windowsills and balconies.

Hanging the bird feeder over a paved or decked area, which can be regularly swept clear of debris, may help to reduce problems with rats, if they prove a nuisance.

A bird bath can be a vital source of drinking water for birds. Ensure that yours is topped up, and kept free of ice. Models are available to attach to windows, walls and sills, if you are limited for space. Do be aware of hygiene in the bird bath, especially with the current concern about Asian bird flu. Changing the water regularly, and scrubbing the bath out with a mild detergent (available from bird food suppliers) can help to prevent the spread of disease.

Although risk is still deemed to be low outside of the poultry industry, anyone interested in birds in their garden will be concerned about bird flu’ (see www.rspb.org.uk or www.defra.gov.uk/animalh/diseases/notifiable/disease/ai/index.htm). Good hygiene is key to reducing risk. Changing the water in bird baths regularly, scrubbing them out with a special detergent (available from bird food suppliers), and making sure that wild bird droppings are not allowed to accumulate on lawns or surfaces, will help to prevent the disease spreading. Obviously, if you keep pet birds or chickens, you are advised to keep them completely separate from potential contact with wild birds, and to mind your own hygiene before and after handling them, wearing suitable protective clothing that is kept solely for this task.

Insects

Butterflies can emerge in spells of sunshine - particularly brimstones and commas.

Bee homes are now widely available. Initial reports suggest that nesting boxes for colony-forming bees (such as bumble and honey bees) are not always effective, but homes for solitary bees (such as mason bees), made from tubes and tunnels in boxes, are more successful. They are also attractive. Models with a backing are more successful than those open at both ends. This kind of bee house is easy to make at home. Even a tin can filled with straws will do the job. South-facing positions, hanging at chest height or above, are best. Bees usually colonise these homes in spring, hibernating over winter to emerge the following spring. The boxes can be left out over winter, or taken down and stored in a safe place to avoid bees being eaten by predators.

Remember that insects are gardeners’ friends as well as foes! They are natural pest controllers, and will keep each other’s populations down to manageable levels once your garden has got back into a natural balance.

Plants

If you are planting new trees, shrubs and perennials, it is a good idea to mix in some native plants with the more exotic or cultivated specimens. Although many insects will happily feed and breed on a selection of plants (native or otherwise), others are fussier, and prefer natives, particularly when it comes to breeding (e.g. the pearl-bordered fritillary, which breeds in areas of coppiced hazel - see www.butterfly-conservation.org/species/guide_wb/pearl-bordered_fritillary.html). A wide diversity of plants will encourage a wide diversity of insects, and this is likely to be the best recipe for a rich mix of mammals, amphibians and birds in your garden.

You may wish to identify a suitable part of the garden to leave untouched as a wildlife area. A small patch behind a shed is perfectly fine if you’re worried about it looking untidy.

Now could be a good time to build a compost heap or a leafmould pen, if you do not have these in your garden already. They will be ready for all the debris produced by the new growing season.

You may wish to plan a wildflower meadow. Now is a good time to prepare the ground. You will need to create a seedbed if you wish to sow wild flower seed. Annual cornflower seed mix gives an instant display in the first year. Perennial seed mixes take two years to flower, and may be less dramatic in their appearance. An alternative is to spray a weed killer containing glyphosate, on patches of the existing grass. Plug plants can be sourced to grow on, and to then plant in the bare patches. This will only work where the existing grass is not very vigorous. Ryegrasses can overwhelm meadow flowers. If you do have rye grass, another option is to over-seed with yellow rattle. This is an annual parasite of grass, gradually weakening it, and hopefully self-seeding from year to year, producing pretty yellow flowers. It can be sown directly onto the grass. For information on suppliers, and further advice, see our web advice page on sowing wildflower meadows.

All wildlife

Put out log and twig piles made from old prunings and felled trees. These provide valuable shelter for wildlife, and can be made into attractive features by planting up with ferns, primroses, or other suitable plants. A site well away from the house should ensure that unwanted creepy crawlies do not stray into domestic rooms.

Piles of slabs or rockery stones will act as a suitable wildlife habitat, as will old bales of straw, hay or prunings.

Corrugated iron or plastic laid on the soil can provide ‘tunnel’ hiding places for small reptiles and mammals looking for shelter and warmth.

You may wish to identify a suitable part of the garden to leave untouched as a wildlife area. A small patch behind a shed is perfectly fine if you’re worried about it looking untidy.

You could plan and dig a wildlife pond before the spring arrives, and the garden gets busier.

Now could be a good time to build a compost heap or a leafmould pen, if you do not have these in your garden already. They will be ready for all the debris produced by the new growing season.

  • Buff-tailed bumble bee. Credit: Wildstock

    Buff-tailed bumblebee

    Bombus terrestris

    Queen bumblebees spend the winter hibernating before setting out to begin a new colony each spring. One of the earliest species to emerge is the buff-tailed bumblebee, which can often be seen in late February. Look out for the large queens investigating potential sites to build the foundations of the new colony.

  • Reed bunting. Credit: Gianpiero Ferrari

    Reed bunting

    Emberiza schoeniclus

    Normally reed buntings would be feeding on weed seeds in farmland stubbles at this time of year, but with continuing changes in farming practice these are one of many similar species facing a severe decline. To compensate, more and more are appearing in gardens at particularly stressful times. In cold February weather, when food in the wild is scarce, you might find this stocky little bird among the crowds at the bird feeder.

  • Goldfinch. Credit: Neil Aldridge

    Goldfinch

    Carduelis carduelis

    Brightly coloured and with an enchanting twitter, goldfinches are one of the most eagerly sought after of garden birds. At this time of year the struggle for food in the wild will bring more of these birds into gardens. Generally they feed on small seeds such as thistle or teasel, and putting out niger seed can help encourage them to make regular visits to your garden.

  • Common frog. Credit: Richard Burkmar

    Common frog

    Rana temporaria

    Look out for the first clusters of frogspawn, which will start to appear in garden ponds at this time of year. Frogs have spent the winter hibernating in quiet, damp places, or even in decaying matter at the bottom of ponds. With spring approaching they emerge to breed.